Military History Books
by Harold A. Skaarup   
German Warships of the Second World War

German Warships of the Second World War

Data current to 1 April 2021.

 (Kriegsmarine Photo)

The Tirpitz firing.


In 1935, the German government negotiated the Anglo-German Naval Agreement, which stipulated the German Kriegsmarine could rebuild to 35 percent of the strength of the Royal Navy.   The first new battleships built in Germany were the two Scharnhorst-class ships, the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau, in 1935.  Two Bismarck-class battleships followed in 1936, with the Bismarck being completed in 1940 and  the Tirpitz in 1941.  In 1939, Plan Z was developed to rebuild the German navy, calling for the construction of six additional battleships of the H-39-class.  Although two of them were laid down in mid-1939, they were canceled within two months, due to the outbreak of the Second World War that September.  The other four were canceled before construction began.  The Bismarck, Tirpitz, and Scharnhorst were sunk during the war and the Gneisenau was scuttled in Gotenhafen in 1945.  (Gardiner, Robert & Chesneau, Roger, eds. Conway's All the World's Fighting Ships, 1922-1946Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1980), and (Gröner, Erich.  German Warships: 1815–1945. Vol. I: Major Surface Vessels. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1990)

The two Scharnhorst-class battleships were the first capital ships built for the Kriegsmarine after the end of the First World War. Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were armed with nine 28-cm (11-inch) SK C/34 guns in three triple turrets, though there were plans to replace these weapons with six 38-cm (15-inch) SK C/34 guns in twin turrets.

The two ships were laid down in 1935, launched in late 1936, and commissioned into the German fleet by early 1939.  Scharnhorst and Gneisenau operated together for much of the early portion of the Second World War, including sorties into the Atlantic to raid British merchant shipping.  The two ships participated in Operation Weserübung, the German invasion of Norway.  During operations off Norway, the two ships engaged the British battlecruiser HMS Renown and sank the aircraft carrier HMS Glorious.  In the engagement with HMS Glorious, the Scharnhorst scored one of the longest-range naval gunfire hits in history.  In early 1942, the two ships made a daylight dash up the English Channel from occupied France to Germany.

In late 1942, the Gneisenau was heavily damaged in an Allied air raid against Kiel.  In early 1943, the Scharnhorst joined the Bismarck-class battleship Tirpitz in Norway to interdict Allied convoys to the Soviet Union.  When the Scharnhorst and several German destroyers sortied from Norway to attack a convoy, the Germans were intercepted by British naval patrols. During the Battle of North Cape, the Royal Navy battleship HMS Duke of York sank the Scharnhorst on 26 Dec 1943.  Repair work was being done on the Gneisenau and the ship was in the process of being rearmed, but when the Scharnhorst was sunk, the work on her sister was abandoned.  She was later sunk as a blockship at Gdynia in 1945.  Her wreckage was broken up for scrap in the 1950s.

 (Kriegsmarine Photo)
Scharnhorst was a German capital ship, alternatively described as a battleship or battlecruiser, of Germany's Kriegsmarine. She was the lead ship of her class, which included one other ship, Gneisenau.  The ship was built at the Kriegsmarinewerft dockyard in Wilhelmshaven; she was laid down on 15 June 1935 and launched a year and four months later on 3 October 1936. Completed in January 1939, the ship was armed with a main battery of nine 28 cm (11 in) C/34 guns in three triple turrets. Plans to replace these weapons with six 38 cm (15 in) SK C/34 guns in twin turrets were never carried out.
Scharnhorst and Gneisenau operated together for much of the early portion of the Second World War, including sorties into the Atlantic to raid British merchant shipping.  During her first operation, Scharnhorst sank the auxiliary cruiser HMS Rawalpindi in a short engagement (November 1939).  Scharnhorst and Gneisenau participated in Operation Weserübung (April–June 1940), the German invasion of Norway.  During operations off Norway, the two ships engaged the British battlecruiser HMS Renown and sank the aircraft carrier HMS Glorious as well as her escort destroyers HMS Acasta and HMS Ardent.  In that engagement Scharnhorst achieved one of the longest-range naval gunfire hits in history.
In early 1942, after repeated British bombing raids, the two ships made a daylight dash up the English Channel from occupied France to Germany.  In early 1943, Scharnhorst joined the Bismarck-class battleship Tirpitz in Norway to interdict Allied convoys to the Soviet Union.  Scharnhorst and several destroyers sortied from Norway to attack a convoy, but British naval patrols intercepted the German force.  During the Battle of the North Cape (26 December 1943), the Royal Navy battleship HMS Duke of York and her escorts sank Scharnhorst.  Only 36 men were rescued, out of a crew of 1,968.
 (Kriegsmarine Photo)
 (Kriegsmarine Photo)
The Gneisenau was a German capital ship, alternatively described as a battleship and battlecruiser, of Germany's Kriegsmarine. She was the second vessel of her class, which included her sister ship, Scharnhorst. The ship was built at the Deutsche Werke dockyard in Kiel; she was laid down on 6 May 1935 and launched on 8 December 1936.  Completed in May 1938, the ship was armed with a main battery of nine 28 cm (11 in) C/34 guns in three triple turrets, though there were plans to replace these weapons with six 38 cm (15 in) SK C/34 guns in twin turrets.
The Gneisenau and Scharnhorst operated together for much of the early portion of the Second World War, including sorties into the Atlantic to raid British merchant shipping.  During their first operation, the two ships sank the British auxiliary cruiser HMS Rawalpindi in a short battle.  The Gneisenau and Scharnhorst participated in Operation Weserübung, the German invasion of Norway.  During operations off Norway, the two ships engaged the battlecruiser HMS Renown and sank the aircraft carrier HMS Glorious.  The Gneisenau was damaged in the action with HMS Renown and later torpedoed by a British submarine, HMS Clyde, off Norway.  After a successful raid in the Atlantic in 1941, the Gneisenau and her sister put in at Brest, France. The two battleships were the subject of repeated bombing raids by the RAF.  The Gneisenau was hit several times during the raids, though she was ultimately repaired.
In early 1942, the two ships made a daylight dash up the English Channel from occupied France to Germany.  After reaching Kiel in early February, the ship went into drydock.  On the night of 26 February, the British launched an air attack on the ship.  One bomb penetrated her armoured deck and exploded in the forward ammunition magazine, causing serious damage and many casualties.  The repairs necessitated by the damage were so time-consuming that it was determined to rebuild the ship to accommodate the 38-cm guns as originally intended.  The 28-cm guns were removed and used as shore batteries. In 1943, Hitler ordered the cessation of conversion work, and on 27 March 1945, she was sunk as a blockship in Gotenhafen (Gdynia) in German-occupied Poland.  She was eventually broken up for scrap in 1951.
 (Kriegsmarine Photo)
The Gneisenau

The Bismarck and Tirpitz were the last and largest battleships completed by the German navy, as well as the heaviest ever built in Europe.  They were built according to the terms of the Anglo-German Naval Agreement signed in 1935, and ostensibly displaced no more than the 35,000 long tons (36,000 t) specified in the agreement.  The ships were, in actuality, some 15,000 long tons (15,000 t) heavier at full load.  The ships were built to counter new French battleships then under construction.

Both ships saw combat during the Second World War.  The Bismarck was deployed in May 1941 to raid British shipping in the Atlantic Ocean along with the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen  During the operation, Bismarck sank the British battlecruiser HMS Hood and heavily damaged the new battleship HMS Prince of Wales, forcing her to retreat.  All of the available British naval assets were mobilized in a massive hunt to track and destroy the Bismarck.  Several days later, the Bismarck was disabled by a torpedo hit from a Fleet Air Arm (FAA) Fairey Swordfish launched from HMS Ark Royal and subsequently destroyed by the battleships HMS Rodney and HMS King George V on 27 May.

The Tirpitz's career was less active; she spent the majority of the war as a fleet in being in occupied Norway.  The Royal Navy attempted to sink her with midget submarines, but the efforts were unsuccessful.  In November 1944, RAF Avro Lancaster bombers hit the ship three times with 12,000 lb (5,400 kg) bombs, which caused her to capsize and sink.  The wreck was eventually broken up in 1948–1957.

The Bismarck was the first of two Bismarck-class battleships built for Germany's Kriegsmarine.  Named after Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, the ship was laid down at the Blohm & Voss shipyard in Hamburg in July 1936 and launched in February 1939.  Work was completed in August 1940, when she was commissioned into the German fleet.  The Bismarck and her sister ship Tirpitz were the largest battleships ever built by Germany, and two of the largest built by any European power.
In the course of the warship's eight-month career under its sole commanding officer, Captain Ernst Lindemann, the Bismarck conducted only one offensive operation, lasting 8 days in May 1941, codenamed Rheinübung.  The ship, along with the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen, was to break into the Atlantic Ocean and raid Allied shipping from North America to Great Britain.  The two ships were detected several times off Scandinavia, and British naval units were deployed to block their route.  At the Battle of the Denmark Strait, the battlecruiser HMS Hood initially engaged the Prinz Eugen, probably by mistake, while HMS Prince of Wales engaged the Bismarck.  In the ensuing battle, HMS Hood was destroyed by the combined fire of the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen, which then damaged HMS Prince of Wales and forced her retreat.  The Bismarck suffered sufficient damage from three hits to force an end to the raiding mission.
The destruction of HMS Hood spurred a relentless pursuit by the Royal Navy involving dozens of warships.  Two days later, heading for occupied France to effect repairs, the Bismarck was attacked by 16 Fairey Swordfish biplane torpedo bombers from the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal.  One scored a hit that rendered the battleship's steering gear inoperable.  In her final battle the following morning, the already-crippled Bismarck was engaged by two British battleships and two heavy cruisers, and sustained incapacitating damage and heavy loss of life.  The ship was scuttled to prevent her being boarded by the British, and to allow the ship to be abandoned so as to limit further casualties.  Most experts agree that the battle damage would have caused her to sink eventually.
The wreck was located in June 1989 by Robert Ballard, and has since been further surveyed by several other expeditions.  A detailed underwater survey of the wreck in 2002 showed that the sustained close-range shelling was largely ineffective in the effort to sink the ship.  The many torpedoes launched at the Bismarck were also almost completely ineffective, and the massive plating of the armoured deck was also found to be virtually intact.
 (Kriegsmarine Photo)
The Bismarck.
 (Kriegsmarine Photo)
The Bismarck.

 (Kriegsmarine Photo)

The Tirpitz was the second of two Bismarck-class battleships built for Germany's Kriegsmarine (navy) prior to and during the Second World War.  Named after Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, the architect of the Kaiserliche Marine (Imperial Navy), the ship was laid down at the Kriegsmarinewerft Wilhelmshaven in November 1936 and her hull was launched two and a half years later.  Work was completed in February 1941, when she was commissioned into the German fleet.  Like her sister ship, Bismarck, Tirpitz was armed with a main battery of eight 38-centimetre (15 in) guns in four twin turrets.  After a series of wartime modifications she was 2000 tonnes heavier than Bismarck, making her the heaviest battleship ever built by a European navy.
After completing sea trials in early 1941, the Tirpitz briefly served as the centrepiece of the Baltic Fleet, which was intended to prevent a possible break-out attempt by the Soviet Baltic Fleet. In early 1942, the ship sailed to Norway to act as a deterrent against an Allied invasion.  While stationed in Norway, the Tirpitz was also intended to be used to intercept Allied convoys to the Soviet Union, and two such missions were attempted in 1942.  This was the only feasible role for her, since the St Nazaire Raid had made operations against the Atlantic convoy lanes too risky. The Tirpitz acted as a fleet in being, forcing the British Royal Navy to retain significant naval forces in the area to contain the battleship.
In September 1943, the Tirpitz, along with the battleship Scharnhorst, bombarded Allied positions on Spitzbergen, the only time the ship used her main battery in an offensive role.  Shortly thereafter, the ship was damaged in an attack by British mini-submarines and subsequently subjected to a series of large-scale air raids.  On 12 November 1944, British Avro Lancaster bombers equipped with 12,000-pound (5,400 kg) "Tallboy" bombs scored two direct hits and a near miss which caused the ship to capsize rapidly.  A deck fire spread to the ammunition magazine for one of the main battery turrets, which caused a large explosion.  Figures for the number of men killed in the attack range from 950 to 1,204.  Between 1948 and 1957, the wreck was broken up by a joint Norwegian and German salvage operation.

 (Kriegsmarine Photo)

The Tirpitz in a Norwegian fijord.

 (Kriegsmarine Photo)

The Tirpitz in a Norwegian fijord.

Pre-dreadnought battleships

Deutschland-class (15,000 tons, 4 × 280mm guns)

Hannover, 1905. Decommissioned 1931. Used in explosive tests. Scrapped 1944-1946.

Schleswig-Holstein, 1906. Sunk by bombing, 1944.

Schlesien, 1906. Mined and sunk, 1945.

Heavy cruisers

Admiral Hipper-class (14,000 tons, 8 × 203 mm guns)

 (Kriegsmarine Photo)

Admiral Hipper, Laid down 1935, Commissioned 1937, Completed 1939, Scuttled 1945.

 (Kriegsmarine Photo)

Admiral Hipper.

 (Kriegsmarine Photo)

Blücher, Commissioned 1937. Sunk in battle, 1940.

 (Kriegsmarine Photo)

Prinz Eugen, Laid down 1936, Commissioned 1938, Completed 1940, Sunk after Operation Crossroads, 1946.

 (Kriegsmarine Photo)

The Prinz Eugen.

 (Kriegsmarine Photo)

The Prinz Eugen.

Deutschland-class (12,000 tons, 6 × 280 mm guns)

Deutschland (renamed Lützow), Laid Down, 1929, Commissioned 1931, Completed 1933, Disabled 1945, Raised and Sunk as Target 1947.

 (Kriegsmarine Photo)

Admiral Scheer, Laid down 1931, Commissioned 1933, Completed 1934, Sunk by Bombing 1945.

 (Kriegsmarine Photo)

The Admiral Scheer.

 (Kriegsmarine Photo)

The Admiral Scheer.

Admiral Graf Spee, Laid down 1932, Commissioned 1934, Scuttled at Montevidea, 1939.

Light cruisers

Emden-class (6,000 tons, 8 × 150 mm guns)

Emden, Laid down 1921, Commissioned 1925, Scuttled 1945.

Königsberg-class (7,200 tons, 9 × 150 mm guns)

Königsberg, Commissioned 1927. Sank 1940.

Karlsruhe, Commissioned 1927. Sank 1940.

Köln, Laid down 1926, Commissioned 1928, Completed 1930, Sunk by Bombing 1945.

Leipzig-class (8,000 tons, 9 × 150 mm guns)

Leipzig, laid down 1928, Commissioned 1929, Completed 1931, Scuttled 1946.

Nürnberg, Laid down 1934, Commissioned 1935, Given to Soviet Navy 1945 and renamed Admiral Makarov. Sold for Scrap 1960.

Unfinished Ships

Heavy cruisers

Seydlitz, (uncompleted, intended for conversion into light aircraft carrier,)

Lutzow, (sold uncompleted to Soviet Union in 1940)

Aircraft Carriers

Graf Zeppelin-class

Graf Zeppelin, Laid down 1936, commissioned 1938 (85% complete at the beginning of the war, never completed)

Flugzeugträger B, Laid Down 1938, never launched, broken up 1940.

Projected recognition drawing of Graf Zeppelin had she been completed in September 1942.

The Graf Zeppelin represented part of the Kriegsmarine's attempt to create a well-balanced oceangoing fleet, capable of projecting German naval power far beyond the narrow confines of the Baltic and North Seas.  The carrier would have had a complement of 42 fighters and dive bombers.

Construction on Graf Zeppelin began on 28 December 1936, when her keel was laid down at the Deutsche Werke shipyard in Kiel.  Named in honour of Graf (Count) Ferdinand von Zeppelin, the ship was launched on 8 December 1938, and was 85% complete by the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939.  Graf Zeppelin was not completed and was never operational due to shifting construction priorities necessitated by the war.  She remained in the Baltic for the duration of the war; with Germany's defeat imminent, the ship's custodian crew scuttled her just outside Stettin in March 1945.  The Soviet Union raised the ship in March 1946, and she was ultimately sunk in weapons tests north of Poland 17 months later.  The wreck was discovered by a Polish survey ship in July 2006.  (Wikipedia)

Graf Zeppelin was 262.5 meters (861.2 ft) long overall; she had a beam of 36.2 m (118.8 ft) and a maximum draft of 8.5 m (27.9 ft).  At full combat load, she would have displaced 33,550 long tons (34,088.4 t).  The ship's propulsion system consisted of four Brown, Boveri & Cie geared turbines with sixteen oil-fired, ultra-high-pressure LaMont boilers.  The power plant was rated at 200,000 shaft horsepower (49,140.0 kW) and a top speed of 33.8 knots (62.6 km/h; 38.9 mph).  Graf Zeppelin had a projected cruising radius of 8,000 nautical miles (14,816.0 km; 9,206.2 mi) at a speed of 19 kn (35.2 km/h; 21.9 mph).  She would have had a crew of 1760 officers and enlisted men, plus flight crews.

The ship's primary offensive power would have been its aircraft complement.  Graf Zeppelin would have carried 42 aircraft as designed: 12 navalized Junkers Ju 87 "Stuka" dive bombers, 10 Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighters, and 20 Fieseler Fi 167 torpedo bombers Later during the construction process, the aerial complement was reworked to consist of thirty Ju 87s and twelve Bf 109s, and the Fi 167s were removed altogether.  As designed, Graf Zeppelin was to be fitted with eight 15-cm SK C/28 guns for defence against surface warships.  This number was later increased to sixteen.  Her anti-aircraft battery consisted of ten 10.5-cm SK C/33 guns, later increased to twelve, twenty-two 3.7-cm SK C/30 guns, and twenty-eight 2-cm guns.  The ship's flight deck was protected with up to 45 millimeters (1.8 in) of Wotan Weich steel armour.  A 60-mm (2.4-inch) thick armoured deck was located under the deck to protect the ship's vitals from aerial attacks.  Graf Zeppelin had a waterline armour belt that was 100-mm (3.9-inch) thick in the central area of the ship.

 (Bundesarchiv, RM 25 Bild-62 / CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Graf Zeppelin under construction at Kiel, 21 June 1940.

 (US Navy Photo, NH 78307)

The German aircraft carrier Graf Zeppelin photographed on 6 February 1942 at Gotenhafen (today Gdynia, Poland) by a British Royal Air Force aircraft.  A three-masted sailing ship, possibly one of the German Navy's vessels (Horst Wessel (1936), Albert Leo Schlageter (1937), or Gorch Fock (1933)), appears at a nearby pier.

 (USN Photo, NH 78311)

The former German aircraft carrier Graf Zeppelin on 5 April 1947 at Swinemünde (today ?winouj?cie, Poland) while in Soviet custody.  The scuttled carrier had been refloated in March 1946 and was sunk as a target in the Baltic Sea on 16 August 1947.

 (Raboe001 Photo)

Model of the German aircraft carrier Graf Zeppelin, Aeronauticum Cuxhaven, Germany.